The Right to Information (RTI) Act has been an important tool for journalists to uncover sensitive, important and hidden information in the effort of writing major stories. In fact, a lot of stories published on Moneylife have been backed up by information retrieved through RTI applications.
Therefore, in the interest of sharing how RTI can be used by journalists, Moneylife Foundation had invited Vishwas Waghmode, prinicipal correspondent for Indian Express, who has extensively used RTI to write important stories in various departments across the Maharashtra government.
One of the stumbling blocks in the path of investigative and analytical journalism has been the difficulty in getting access to official information. Here, the RTI Act has allowed journalists and even concerned citizens to boldly ask questions about the state of affairs, consequentially promoting accountability and transparency within the government.
In his talk Mr Waghmode presented several examples to demonstrate how he has used RTI to investigate leads, acquire information and write important stories. Writing for the Indian Express, Mr Waghmode has investigated the controversial Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial project. He stated how the initial cost quoted by the contractor was Rs3,826 crs. which was supposed to be the lowest bid as opposed to the government’s bid which was Rs2,500 crs. The government in order to resolve this issue, set up a committee led by the chief secretary in order to renegotiate the cost which successfully got the cost down to the government’s estimate if Rs2,500crs. Mr. Waghmode in connection with this case stated that the rules do not allow renegotiation but rather they are supposed to issue fresh tenders.
He further added that the opposition was alleging the government had reduced the height of the statute in order to reduce the cost which the government vehemently denied. Reiterating the struggles he faced with the government authorities concerning the Shivaji Memorial project, he described how in order to get the required result, he filed a RTI application to inspect files showing the development details of the memorial with the project division.
Interestingly, Mr. Waghmode revealed how the government had in reality decreased the height of the statue and the horse by 7.5m. But in order to show that the height of the statue was not reduced, they had instead increased the height of the sword by 7.5m. He further revealed that since the sword is straight, the amount of money required to build the sword was quite less when compared to the reduction in height and that in turn helped them reduce the cost by a substantial amount. This revelation in turn led to an embarrassing situation for the state government as they could not justify why the height of the sword was raised.
Mr Waghmode also stressed the importance of having a good relationship with a PIO. When asked whether he is put at a disadvantage by mentioning his profession on an RTI application, Mr Waghmode replied, “Most PIOs don’t realise the person filing the application is a journalist and I don’t stress the fact when I go for an inspection.” He usually sympathises with the PIO by telling them how RTI has become a headache for them with so many people filing frivolous applications. He tries to persuade them that he is only there to inspect some documents and that he would do so independently, marking out pages that he would like to have copies of. Most PIOs would then readily agree to allow inspection of the documents and some have even become quite good friends of Mr Waghmode. He did agree however, that his profession is both an advantage and a disadvantage, as some PIOs recognising him as a journalist have denied him information while others have readily parted with it.
Though the RTI act has made gathering information easy for the common citizen there are some public authorities who have become adept at denying information, claiming exemptions using various circulars of government departments and court orders. There are also circumstances when the concerned PIO would give out confusing information or information worded in such a way that it cannot be understood. Mr Waghmode’s advice on countering such actions was to keep filing RTI applications and perhaps approach the PIO with proper justification to prove your case.